Scientific Name(s): Gentiana acaulis L., Gentiana lutea L., Gentiana scabra Bunge.
Common Name(s): Bitter root, Bitterwort, Felwort, Gall weed, Gentian, Gentiana, Radix Gentianae Lutea
Native to the mountains of central and southern Europe, G. lutea is a perennial herb that grows to 1.8 m with erect stems and smooth, oval leaves. The plant produces a cluster of fragrant orange-yellow flowers. The roots and rhizomes are nearly cylindrical, sometimes branched, varying in thickness from 5 to 40 mm. The root and rhizome portions are longitudinally wrinkled. The color of the rhizomes, ranging from dark brown to light tan, appears to be related to the content of bitter principles, because the darker roots have a more persistent, bitter taste. The roots and rhizomes of G. lutea are used medicinally.Meyer 1934, PLANTS 2010, WHO 1999
G. acaulis is a smaller herb with a basal rosette of lance-shaped leaves and generally grows to 10 cm in height. It is native to the European Alps at 914 to 1,524 m above sea level. The entire G. acaulis plant is used medicinally. Numerous species of gentian native to China are used in Chinese traditional medicine. Radix Gentianae Scabrae (known as Chinese or Japanese gentian) is indigenous to Korea, China, and Japan, and contains chemical constituents similar to these of G. lutea.WHO 1999
The gentians have been used for centuries as bitters to stimulate the appetite, improve digestion, and treat a variety of GI complaints (eg, diarrhea, heartburn, stomach ache, vomiting). Stemless gentian usually is consumed as a tea or alcoholic extract, such as Angostura bitters. The extracts are used in a variety of foods, cosmetics, and some antismoking products. The plant has been used externally to treat wounds and internally to treat sore throat, arthritic inflammation, and jaundice. Despite the name, the dye gentian violet is not derived from this plant.DerMarderosian 1988, Leung 1996, WHO 1999
The most characteristic aspect of gentian is its bitter taste imparted by a number of iridoid glycosides, primarily amarogentin, gentiopicrin (about 1.5% in fresh roots), gentiopicroside, and swertiamarin. The speed of drying of the roots affects their properties as medicinal bitters. Slow drying permits enzymatic hydrolysis of gentiopicrin into gentiogenin and glucose, therefore reducing bitterness. Gentian extract is used as a bitter in concentrations of approximately 0.02% in nonalcoholic beverages. The iridoids have been analyzed by thin-layer chromatography, micellar electrokinetic capillary chromatography, and high-performance liquid chromatography mass spectrometry.Bricout 1974, Glatz 2000, Szucs 2002
In addition to iridoids, the roots contain xanthones and triterpenes.Hayashi 1988, Kakuda 2003, Toriumi 2003 The reported pyridine alkaloids gentianine and gentialutine are thought to be artifacts of basic extraction derived from the iridoids. Stemless gentian also contains the xanthone glycoside gentiacauloside. The flowers and leaves of G. lutea contain iridoids, flavonoids, and xanthones.Menkovic 2000
Uses and Pharmacology
Quality clinical trials evaluating the effect of gentian or its chemical constituents are lacking.WHO 1999
Gentianine and gentiopicroside have been shown to exert a measurable anti-inflammatory and analgesic effect in animals. Extracts of G. lutea were active in carageenan-induced rat paw edema, xylol-induced mouse ear edema, and cotton-pellet granulatoma models. In addition, the extracts were active in several wound-healing models.Chen 2008, Mathew 2004, Ozturk 2006
Clinical trials are lacking.
Radix Gentianae Lutea and gentian extracts have been shown to exert antibacterial, antifungal, and antiprotozoal effects in vitro.WHO 1999
Methanolic extracts of the flowers and leaves of G. lutea demonstrated a wide range of activity against gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria and yeasts. Isolated chemical constituents mangiferin, isogentisin, and gentiopicrin also demonstrated activity.Savikin 2009, Weckesser 2007 Activity against Helicobacter pylori has been demonstrated in vitro.Lans 2007, Mahady 2005 Amarogentin and 2 other iridoids inhibited topoisomerase I of Leishmania.Ray 1996
The roots of G. lutea have been used as an anthelmintic in ethnoveterinary medicine.Lans 2007
Clinical trials are lacking.
In an uncontrolled study, stimulation of gall bladder secretions was increased by gentian.WHO 1999
Bitter substances ingested before meals are reputed to improve the appetite and aid digestion by stimulating the flow of gastric juices and bile. However, because gentian is most often consumed in alcoholic beverages, it is difficult to distinguish the effects of gentian from those of alcohol.
Ethanol extracts of the roots and rhizomes of G. lutea have increased gastric secretions in rats and sheep.WHO 1999
In 2 uncontrolled clinical studies, stimulation of gastric secretions was increased and GI symptoms (eg, abdominal pain, constipation, dyspepsia, heartburn) were reduced.WHO 1999
Gentian extracts have hydroxy radical scavenging activityCalliste 2001, Kusar 2006 and exert a protective effect against ketoconazole-induced testicular damage in rats, assumed to be due to antioxidant effects.Amin 2008 Gentiopicroside and the essential oil of G. lutea relax smooth muscle in isolated animal trachea and ileum.Rojas 2000, WHO 1999 Gentian extracts prolong swimming endurance in mice.Öztürk 2002
The pharmacokinetics and tissue distribution of gentiopicroside after oral and parenteral administration have been studied in mice. It was rapidly absorbed with low bioavailability and rapidly cleared.Wang 2004, Wang 2007
Infusions, decoctions, and macerations of gentian roots and rhizomes have been used as a bitter digestive tonic in doses of 1 to 4 g/day. There are no clinical studies to substantiate this dosage recommendation.WHO 1999
Pregnancy / Lactation
Mutagenic activity has been demonstrated in assays, and G. lutea has been traditionally used as an emmenagogue. Avoid use in pregnancy and lactation.WHO 1999
Case reports are lacking; however, hemostatic activity has been demonstrated in vitro for extracts of G. luteaBakuridze 2009 and isogentisin and several other compounds from gentian inhibited monoamine oxidase.Suzuki 1978, Haraguchi 2004 If substantiated in a clinical setting, these properties may have implications for coadministration of anticoagulant or antidepressant medicines.
The extract is usually taken in very small doses that do not appear to cause adverse effects; however, it may cause GI irritation, resulting in nausea and vomiting and, rarely, headache. Radix Gentianae Lutea is contraindicated in GI or duodenal ulcer. Classical texts include hypertension as a contraindication, but the reasons are difficult to substantiate.WHO 1999
Mutagenicity has been demonstrated for methanolic extracts in Salmonella assays.WHO 1999
The highly toxic white hellebore (Veratrum album L.) often grows in close proximity to gentian. Cases of acute veratrum alkaloid poisoning have been reported due to accidental contamination of gentian preparations by veratrum. Identification of esteralkaloids were the suspected cause of resulting nausea, vomiting, oral paraesthesia, hypotension, and severe bradycardia.Garnier 1985, Grobusch 2008, Rauber-Lüthy 2010
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